Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sir Arthur Evans and the Search for The Minoan Empire

In March of 1900 work began in Crete, the largest island in the Aegean Sea,  on a  excavation site on its northern shores. Within three years a previously unknown people came to light that hd been lost from the world for centuries. 

This excavation and others   led to the discovery of one of the first major European civilizations--a long vanished sea empire based on that island.  This culture which traded and was greatly influenced by the art and culture of  Egypt,   rose up in the earliest time of the Bronze Age (3000 BCE) and continued for a millennium  and one half. By 1600 it became the leading power in the eastern Mediterranean. But within a century afterwards it sufferd a great volcanic eruption on the near-by island of Thera and a quick series of tsunamis. Combined with earthquakes at other times, these events may have been the catalyst to its destruction.
Whatever the particulars, conquest from the Hellenic mainland by the Mycenaean Civilization soon likely followed Minoan declaine, and the great sea empire of  a single kingdom or feudal city-states was usurped. All this happened over a thousand years before the Golden Age of Greece.    

The man who led the expedition and named the peoples of the temples he found "Minoan" (after King Minos, a legendary king of  Crete)had been a former journalist for the Manchester Guardian and had covered wars and independence movements in the Balkans against the Turkish Empire.  He also had a fortune at his disposal. Evans had beat others to the claim of being the discoverer of ancient Crete --including Heinrich Schliemann, the wealthy German merchant who excavated the ancient site at Troy and the great burial mounds and beehive-shaped tombs of the Mycenaean civilization---to the prize.  It was the latter find at Troy and the Greek mainland that had him and others to further sources that had only been gleamed previously in the great epics of Homer like "The Iliad" ,  written down centuries after the fall of the Bronze Age  powers.

  But Schliemann ran into trouble with local real estate owners for the site tht would later be known to the world as Knossos. 
 It was Evans (left) who later stepped in, helped perhaps by Crete's independance rom Turkey. He had the opportunity and what he and his experts and workers found at this site and others throughout the island  changed the history of the region forever.   
From the website ancientgreece.com 

One of the favorite themes for discussion among scholars is the possible causes for the destruction of the Minoan Civilization. Evidence of a violent end through fire and demolition is clear, but the clues to what caused such destruction have been elusive.

Professor Marinatos was the first to suggest in 1939 that the eruption of Thera, along with the associated effects, was the cause for the catastrophe. The theory argues that the earthquakes destroyed the palaces, tsunamis obliterated the fleet and peers of the Minoans, and the volcanic ash of Thera covered the whole island destroying crops and suffocating animals.

Many geologists have argued that the Thera eruption was of a colossal scale, and the effects described by Marinatos were possible. Others have disagreed. Recent data places the bulk of the ash deposits of the volcano to the East carried by the easterly jet streams of the area, with little effect upon the island of Crete (D.M. Pyle, "New estimates for the volume of the Minoan Eruption". Thera and the Aegean World III, see bibliography)

The biggest blow to this theory came in 1987 from studies conducted at the Greenland ice cap. Scientists dated frozen ash from the Thera eruption and concluded that it occurred in 1645 BC, some 150 years before the final destruction of the Minoan palaces.

Even so, the tsunamis and earthquakes associated with the Thera eruption could have still caused much physical damage to the Minoan fleet and infrastructure, and it would have affected the climate, the economy, and the politics of the region. However, it is doubtful that it could have caused in itself the end of the Minoan civilization. After all, the Minoan society had exhibited acute reflexes in its past history when it rebounded from other physical disasters to elevate its culture to even higher levels. So why did it not recover after the destruction of 1450 BC?

Another factor that might have contributed to the end of Minoan civilization is the invasion and occupation of Crete by the Mycenaeans. Their documented invasion took place around 1400, and in combination with the effects of the Thera eruption present a likely scenario for the final destruction of the Minoan civilization. In this theory, the Minoan fleet and ports were destroyed by the 50 foot waves and were never rebuilt. Possible climatic changes affected crops for many years, which in turn could have led to economic downfall and social upheaval. In this background, the foreign invaders from Mycenae provided the conclusion to a splendid culture which flourished for 1600 years.

One question still remains however. How did the inhabitants of Mycenae escape the effects of the volcanic eruption, when the Minoan civilization was brought to its knees by them? Considering the topography of the Aegean, and accepting the enormity of the volcanic eruption of Thera, it is hard to understand how the Mycenaeans who were just as vulnerable were able to overcome the destruction, while at the same time they were able to preserve (or rebuilt) their fleet and to mount an ambitious expedition to conquer the vast island of Crete.

The questions regarding the destruction of the Minoan civilization linger precariously as the historical records do not provide a definitive answer, and it is these persistent questions which have shrouded prehistoric Crete with an aura of seductive enchantment.



  1. Sorry that this blog is without the pictures I wanted to put on the article. Multiply is acting up and I can't seem to get any pictures up or send it tot the "Inbox" area.

  2. Nefertiti traded with this empire. Jars from this period were painted in some special way. I shall have to peruse my art texts again. I always figured the super volcano ( Thera ), ended the empire rather abruptly as endings go. Seems like a number of amateurs make as many or more discoveries than professionals. Ninavah was discovered by an amateur as well.

  3. I always thought most scholars had conluded that as well, Stephen: a volcanic eruption and tsunami(s) had laid the Minoan cities in ruins and prone to invasion.

    The layout of Knossos--a Labyrinth for sure, at least to a visitor---could certainly have given rise to the story of Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur. There has been evidence of human sacrifices in Minoan sites as well. Perhaps the "Minotaur" aspect was a legend spawned from these amazing "bull jumping" rituals.

    It is interesting indeed how amateurs ike Schliemann and Evans took what information was out there and used their personal resources to make such amazing discoveries. They may not have been as exacting as moderm archaeologists but they inspired so many to seek out what would otherwise still be undiscovered cultural centers.